DUBAI: During a recent work trip to Geneva, Egyptian opera singer Farrah El-Dibany received an unexpected phone call. It was April 23, the day before election day in France, when President Emmanuel Macron was running for re-election against right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen. Macron’s team contacted El-Dibany to invite him to perform “La Marseillaise” – France’s national anthem – in Paris after his eventual victory speech at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, an event that would be watched by millions of people. No pressure at all.
“I was skeptical at first. I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of this event,” El-Dibany told Arab News from the French capital, where she lives. It was very tense. I had to organize things quickly, including the dress. This dress – a red strapless dress by Lebanese designer Gemy Maalouf – attracted almost as much media attention as the a capella performance of El-Dibany.
“I was so stressed that I couldn’t sleep,” she continues. “I got up early, took the train to Paris and went straight to rehearsals. It was surreal. I don’t know how it all happened.
She was well aware of the challenges associated with one of the most famous melodies ever written.
“It was so intimidating,” recalls the mezzo-soprano. “I kept repeating it over and over. I was afraid of spoiling everything or forgetting a word, because everyone would be watching, not just France. I’m not French, so I can’t afford a mistake. A Frenchman can be wrong, it’s his country and his anthem.
Despite the short notice and the pressure, the performance was a triumph. El-Dibany performed the opera anthem for two minutes, surrounded by a mass of Macron supporters who began to sing along with her. After the performance, Macron kissed El-Dibany’s hand out of respect and appreciation.
“He was very nice and welcoming,” she says. “I had met him before, so he knew me as a singer. When I came on stage, I greeted him and he (returned the gesture).
The television performance was an important and symbolic cultural moment. El-Dibany became the first foreign artist to perform the national anthem following a declaration of presidential victory in France. It was unlikely to be a coincidence, given Macron’s ideology of advocating social diversity. According to El-Dibany, the last time a non-French artist performed the song was American opera legend Jessye Norman in 1989, to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
“It’s definitely the highlight of my career,” says El-Dibany. “It’s something unique and something I will never forget.”
It is also a career with many highlights to choose from. She became the first Arab artist in residence at the prestigious Opéra National de Paris, founded by King Louis XIV in 1669, winning a three-year contract there. She was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France (awarded to those who have made a significant contribution to the “enrichment” of French culture). Her talent has taken her to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, the Beirut Song Festival, the Arab World Institute, the Palais Garnier and the Giacometti Foundation, among others. She has been dubbed the “Egyptian Carmen”, singing compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Bizet, Tchaikovsky and Rossini, while paying homage to Arab icons such as Dalida, Asmahan and Fayrouz.
El-Dibany was born in Alexandria in 1989. She attended the city’s famous conservatory for piano lessons from the age of seven and sang in her school choir.
“I grew up in a very musical and artistic atmosphere, even though none of my family members are professional musicians,” she says. “My parents definitely noticed that I had a voice. They continued to support me.
El-Dibany’s mother was a banker, his father an architect. At one point, El-Dibany seemed ready to follow in his footsteps. She traveled to Berlin and studied architecture and opera at two different universities.
“Studying two things at the same time was very difficult,” she says. “It was a marathon and everyone around me – except my parents – was telling me I could never do it.”
It was his grandfather who first introduced El-Dibany to the big names in opera: Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Maria Callas and Teresa Berganza.
“What I love about opera is the theater behind it,” she explained. “It’s a combination of acting and singing. I like (inhabiting) a role. When I sing a tune, I am in a role, in an instant.
“People still think opera is a bit like shouting,” she continues. “It’s very dramatic, but we’re not shouting; we have a technique. With this technique, one can (hit) all these different notes or registers. People don’t understand that behind this song there is a lot of technical work.
El Dibany moved to France in 2016, looking to take her career to new heights – something she says would have been nearly impossible back home.
“The thing is that for opera, I can’t have a real career in Egypt. Yes, I have performed in opera houses in Cairo and Alexandria, but at a certain point, when you become really professional in this field, you find yourself needing more opportunities,” she explains. “Opera, at the end of the day, is not part of Eastern or Arab culture, it’s very Western. There are more opportunities in Europe.
Perhaps one of the reasons opera is universally loved is that it stirs people’s emotions, whether you understand the lyrics or not. “Opera is not about understanding the text; it’s about the voice,” says El-Dibany.
And protecting that voice is vital. El-Dibany avoids spicy foods, drinks anise tea, and tries to avoid conversations on the days she performs. “Speech is our enemy,” she says. “It tires the voice immediately.”
Despite his recent world-famous moment, El-Dibany isn’t resting on his laurels. She is eager to continue her upward momentum.
“The ultimate dream for me is to have people’s love,” she says. “To have more and more people who would want to hear my voice and hear me sing all over the world. That’s what being an artist is all about.”